Most first-time candidates in a local election jump into the fray without having a clear idea of how many votes they will need to win. While you certainly can win your race without having this information, identifying your “winning number” will help you run a much more effective campaign, for a few reasons.
First, it takes some of the mystery and uncertainty out of your quest. Just running for office is scary enough, but it’s even scarier if you don’t know the threshold of votes you need to hit for victory. The number of votes you need is the most basic and fundamental piece of data that’s necessary for a successful campaign, and not knowing it can make a candidate feel like he’s flailing around in the dark. Additionally, it can be pretty embarrassing if a supporter asks how many votes you need, and you have no idea what to say.
Secondly, knowing your winning number is going to help you identify more effective tactics and strategies. If you know that your race is probably going to have fewer voters than you’d see in a more active election cycle, then you can allocate your resources to only focus on the most likely voters. If your research shows you that your winning number will probably need to include a higher percentage of votes from a particular political subdivision (city, ward, precinct), then you’ll know to spend more time and money in those places.
Identifying your winning number should be one of the first things you do when getting ready to launch your campaign. This isn’t an exact science, and there might be some unique elements in your election that make historical data less predictive (if there’s another race on the ballot that is getting a lot of attention and will increase voter turnout, for example). But you should be able to get a good ballpark winning number by following these simple steps.
Start by getting election results from at least the last four cycles of the race you’re running in. In many counties, this can be done simply by going to the website of your local board of elections, which usually provide results from races over the last several years. If historical results are not available online, then make a personal trip to the BOE to request the data. They may charge you a small fee to print out the results or put them on a disk, but it’s all public information that anyone can ask for.
Write down the previous results from the seat you’re running for, and don’t just look at the last time it was on the ballot. As I said above, check out at least the last four election cycles. This is important, because turnout and voter makeup can vary greatly depending on what kind of year it is. For example, if you’re running for a city council seat that is up every two years, then there might be higher turnout in some cycles (when the mayor’s seat is on the ballot, for example) and lower turnout in others.
Additionally, make sure that you pay closest attention to races whose elements most closely mirror your election. If you are running for an at-large seat and are one of four competitors, then look closely at prior races that also had four candidates on the ballot. If you have to go further back in the historical data to find races whose fundamentals better mirror yours, then keep looking. (One word of warning, though: obviously, turnout and voter proclivities can change in specific districts over time, as populations change and party preference evolves. The further back you go, the less reliable the data will be for making predictions.)
If you want to really collect some great data that will help you micro-target your strategy, then also check out the numbers from political subdivisions contained within your district. Running for county commissioner? Then make sure you winning number also includes predictions for how many votes you’ll need to pull out of each city in the county. Running for mayor? Then write down how many votes you’ll need in each ward and precinct in the city.
When you’ve looked at data from enough past elections, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how many votes you’ll need to win your race. It’s up to you whether you want to use an average of winning numbers from past elections, or if you want to just grab the winning number of a past candidate from a similar election cycle who won the seat you’re running for.
Once you have your winning number, display it prominently in the place where you do most of your campaign preparations. Having it in front of you as a reminder will keep you motivated, focused and cognizant of exactly what needs to happen for you to win on election night.